Back in session

“It’s like the soup kettle — always hot, always happening.”

That’s the take of one Black Mountain College alumnus — poet, photographer and publisher Jonathan Williams — on his days at the defiantly experimental liberal-arts college that once thrived in WNC. BMC opened in the 1930s at Black Mountain’s Blue Ridge Assembly; in the ’40s, it moved to the banks of Lake Eden (the site of the current Camp Rockmont).

The college, during its short lifespan (23 years, from ’33 to ’56) produced a staggering number of geniuses in fields ranging from physics to visual arts, from music to literature. The list of students and teachers who called the college home at one time or another is almost unbelievable: Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Olson, Francine du Plessix Gray, Willem de Kooning, Kenneth Noland, Merce Cunningham, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan.

No less than Albert Einstein served on the college’s board of directors.

Not just for the “in” crowd

Black Mountain College alumnus Michael Rumaker, in his new book Black Mountain Days (Black Mountain Press, 2003), recalls that heady moment in 1951 when he first heard about the liberal utopia from a painting teacher he knew in Philadelphia.

“‘Oh, yes, Black Mountain,” Rumaker recalls his acquaintance’s description of the college, “‘I hear it’s a hotbed of communists and homosexuals.’

“Hearing that in the oppressive McCarthyite years,” Rumaker continues, “my young, queer ears really pricked up. It definitely sounded like the place for me.”

The 1,200-or-so other students who passed through BMC — many of them so poor they were only able to attend the college because of its then-innovative work-study program, and most of them similarly stifled by the rigid conventions of their times — likely had their own versions of Rumaker’s reaction.

“What happened out there was magic — that’s all,” declares Asheville artist Connie Bostic, treasurer with the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center board of directors. “Even the people you’ve never heard of were extraordinary … and they led extraordinary lives.”

The center was founded 10 years ago by Mary Holden, to pay tribute to the spirit of the college through exhibits, performances, lectures, seminars and publications. And after a decade of what Bostic calls “putting one foot in front of the other,” the organization has finally found a permanent home in downtown Asheville.

An Oct. 24 party celebrating the impending opening of the museum included three former alumni: Rumaker, Williams and Sue Spayth-Riley.

Walking into the newly renovated space at 56 Broadway is a little like stepping into a living history of the college. Paintings, photographs and sculpture by alumni — with works by Williams, Jacob Lawrence, Joe Fiore, Fannie Hillsmith and Kenneth Noland — grace the walls. Noland, like Williams, was one of the very few “locals” who attended the college, Bostic points out.

“Kenneth Noland had two brothers, and they all three went to Black Mountain,” she explains. “They went there initially to study jazz, because their mother had owned a place up on Town Mountain Road called The Castle, which was a jazz club. They grew up going there on Sunday mornings after there’d been a big jazz thing the night before, and they’d pick up loose coins off the floor and have a drink or two that had been left on the tables. They went in the service, then came back and went to Black Mountain [College] on the G.I. Bill.”

Two unadorned wooden benches reminiscent of church pews sit starkly at the center of the museum; they were built by BMC students and once sat inside the campus’ Quiet House, a meditation building constructed in memory of a child who was killed in a car accident near the college.

“We always intend to have some space set aside here to educate people to the historical side of the college, what it was really like around there,” notes John Wright, co-chair of the museum board. “My hope is this center will broaden the base of understanding about the college, and get not just an ‘in’ group — but a much larger group — of people interested and involved.”

Too intellectual for the Beats

Sue Spayth-Riley, who attended Black Mountain College in the ’30s, is a revered expert in early-childhood education. She credits the school’s then highly progressive educational philosophy with helping her form her own approach. Spayth-Riley founded Charlotte’s Open Door School in 1965, and it is still in operation today; the openly integrated public preschool was an anomaly, to say the least, in its early days in the segregated South.

Spayth-Riley had gone to a progressive elementary school in New Jersey. After attending public high school, she wanted to find a college with the freer, less-competitive approach she remembered from her childhood. She read an article about BMC in Harper’s magazine in 1936, and enrolled in 1938 — studying a general curriculum, with particular emphasis in theater and dance.

“Coming into the South was a real-eye opener,” she remembers. “Segregation was something I didn’t understand.” (Later, in 1946, renowned African-American artists Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence came down on the train from New York City to teach for the summer session. They did not leave the campus for the entire summer. Rumaker, in his book, refers to the “deeply-entrenched traditions of racial segregation that were commonplace just outside our green and hilly paradise.”)

Even if she was generally shocked by certain Southern values of the time, Spayth-Riley was happy with what she found on the BMC campus.

“Each individual was respected,” she recalls. “Classes were small, and there was an emphasis on independent thinking, and taking responsibility for designing one’s own program. You were not in competition with other students; there were no fraternities, sororities, competitive sports. We lived together, ate three meals a day together, spent all our time together. After supper, there was always informal dancing in the dining room.

“Nobody went out on dates, because nobody had cars or money. Whatever we did, we did together in this beautiful mountain setting.

“Classes were an extension of the community,” she continues. “You might have a class in the afternoon, then the discussion would continue over the supper table, then maybe late into the evening, and would still be going at breakfast the next morning.”

Spayth-Riley, now secretary on the museum board, is quick to correct one common misconception about BMC: Especially in its early days, “Black Mountain was a liberal-arts college, but not an arts college per se. One of the guiding principles was that art should be integrated into a liberal-arts education, rather than being extracurricular. From this grew the idea that fostered arts colleges.”

Perhaps even more surprising, she stresses, the college was early on marked by an old-fashioned work ethic. As her fellow alumnus Williams puts it, “[Classics scholar] John Rice, who started the college and was soon joined by Josef Albers, was actually quite strict — not moralistic, but rather stiff and formal about things. When Albers — who mirrored some of Rice’s ideals — left at the end of the ’40s, a lot of people thought that was the end of the college.”

Of course, BMC flourished for a decade longer, and Spayth-Riley doesn’t mince words about her opinion of its final era: “There was kind of a disintegration of morals toward the end — an emphasis on decadence, not discipline. I don’t think decadence leads to a healthy society. Nobody really takes responsibility for anything.”

Similarly, even though Black Mountain College has come to be associated with Beat poetry, Williams notes that “the Beats were reluctant to get involved with Black Mountain, because it initially had a reputation of being old-fashioned, very intellectual.” (BMC alumni Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Williams himself have all variously — if sometimes incorrectly — been connected with the Beat movement.)

The publisher was born in Asheville and has spent most of his life in the town of Highlands. Williams, the author of some 50 books of poetry and essays, founded Jargon Press in 1951, the same year he entered Black Mountain College. He initially started the independent press, he says, to bring to life the works of then-neglected poets, especially those connected with the college.

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